12/03/2013 8:02PM

Harvey Vanier, longtime top Illinois trainer, dies at 89

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Retired trainer Harvey Vanier, among the Midwest’s leading horsemen during the 1980s and 1990s, died at home in Versailles, Ky., on Sunday. Vanier was 89.

Born April 21, 1924 in Diller, Neb., Vanier got his start in racing on the Nebraska circuit – first as a jockey – in the early 1940s. His operation expanded considerably through the decades, and Vanier trained high-class stakes winners like Architect, Play Fellow, Western Playboy, Southern Playgirl, and Wade for Me. Vanier won the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland with Play Fellow in 1983, and with Play Fellow’s son Western Playboy in 1989. Play Fellow went on to finish sixth in the Kentucky Derby (he won the 1983 Travers Stakes), while Western Playboy was a troubled 15th in his Derby run.

An historical record dating to the 1940s is difficult to tabulate, but it appears Vanier, who last ran a horse under his name in 2004, saddled at least 2,043 winners during his career. Based principally in Illinois, though he raced winters in Florida and regularly had runners in Kentucky, Vanier won 719 races at Arlington Park alone and is the all-time leading stakes winner there, with 37.

In 1960 Vanier, an Army veteran, married his wife, Nancy, who remains an important part of the Vanier operation. A keen student of pedigree, Nancy Vanier was instrumental in the Vanier’s expansion of their still-active Illinois breeding outfit, Fairbury Farm in Waterloo, Ill. Vanier’s daughter Lyda Williamson (he also is survived by a second daughter, Jennifer Allen), married Brian Williamson, who took over the Vanier string when Harvey, in his early 80s, finally agreed to step down.

Vanier had been hospitalized with cancer of the esophagus but returned home and received hospice care before he died. Much of his family visited the Vaniers' small Kentucky farm for Thanksgiving before Vanier died Sunday afternoon.

Services will be conducted at Quernheim Funeral Home in Waterloo. Visitation is from 4-8 p.m. Friday, with a funeral at 10 a.m. Saturday.